a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Back on the Trolley: The Philadelphia Film Festival

Hmm. Maybe if I start talking about movies again, I’ll stop ranting about myself.

A Talking Picture (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Italy)
Apart from intentionally setting less patient viewers up with an easy joke (see! some long-take masters do have a sense of humor!) 94-year old Portuguese de Oliveira achieves something awfully tricky: he’s made a bristlingly cynical film that feels lovely -- frankly relaxing. Surely, his age (and thus wisdom) has everything to do with it; it’s the kind of movie that demands a second viewing, if only so you can spot the teesny-weensy details that prove that the ending is no mere leftfield segue into Juggernaut.

The European Union, and all the polyglottisms that come with it, is his subject, divided into halves: the first has Portuguese history professor Leonor Silveira lugging her shockingly willing young daughter around various monuments in port towns during stops on their cruise; the second is almost entirely dedicated to John Malkovich’s commander chatting idly with aging divas Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, and Irene Papas over dinner.

A travelogue in two ways, the film almost requires that you sit back and descend into a nice lull, even as you take in an assload of information. But there are seeds. Talk of Dubya-esque invasions by Marseille’s King Sebastian and the strife between Europe and Islam nations abound, but -- and this is de Oliveira’s masterstroke -- it’s not merely there to set up the ending. What he proposes is that with progress comes the same old thing. History lives alongside the present day for de Oliveira -- it’s no mistake that, while all the aforementioned starlets understand eachother’s language as they casually swap monologues, no one understands Silveira’s Portuguese. Even as we make progresses, we (or, rather, Europe) still has strides to go, and it’s foolish to think that all the ills we eventually go away.

Sounds ludicrously dense, no? But not so -- de Oliveira keeps it all in check, allowing for a film that can be interpreted in many ways while still remaining as close to a mainstream film as he’s ever made. Pretty funny, too, what with some very amusing formal repetitions (the same shot of people waving goodbye to the ship; the “boat travels” shot; the bit about a dog with a short leash). Wait, did I say mainstream? “It was so fucking stupid,” was the most audible claim heard on the way out by a fellow attendee. Oh well. B

Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany)
In which Austria’s most ostentatious provocateur -- a director for whom every shot is clearly premeditated, if not anally setup -- realizes he doesn’t have as much control when the focus is on an ensemble. Actually, that’s not true -- Code Unknown also had no central protagonist (despite Juliette Binoche on the cover) and that was maybe the best I’ve seen from him so far. But this one got away from him at some point, even if the results are still rather bone-chilling.

A hopelessly vague apocalyptic situation with a smattering of clues that never fully explain what’s going on (expect fan sites), Time of the Wolf predictably works best when the focus is small, i.e., in the first half-hour. After her husband is shot by a desperate family who’ve taken up in their summer house, Isabelle Huppert -- playing fragile, for once -- struggles to find shelter and food for her and her two kids, one of whom is a terribly selfish mope suffering from chronic nosebleeds and a penchant for running off at inopportune times.

Typical Haneke moments abound in the first act -- the untidy moral conundrum of the first scene sets the movie off in fine fashion, though it in no way prepares us for a sequence where the film turns completely black, except for a hay-fire looming somewhere in the background. (It’s almost duplicated later on, when a long shot of a funeral is suddenly infiltrated by blurry lights in the top right-hand of the frame; “what the fuck is that?,” you could hear everyone in the theater think).

Alas, once our protags make it to the commune, these moments start to drop in frequency. This is surely intentional: Haneke wants to capture what would really happen in the case of some (again, vague) apocalypse, with all the tedious stretches left in. But he also stumbles more usually than he ever has, relying far too much on straight-up bickering and not enough of the kind of scenes you see before. In essence, it feels like it needs one more draft, a couple more situations and audience manipulation tactics to distinguish it as undoubtedly Haneke. This is the first film of his to feel like another person could’ve made it. Still cringe-inducing and effectively hopeless, though. B


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